Alan Hoffstadter, a longtime resident of Oak Park, has spent the last several years in a painstaking effort to discover his family’s German roots. His mother, Charlotte Goldberg, the daughter of a respected Jewish store owner in the town of Datteln, fled Germany in 1933, at the age of 15, and was reluctant to discuss her past with her children.
Hoffstadter has been unearthing that past since 2016 and, along the way, has developed a unique relationship with the mayor and residents of Datteln. The town recently awarded him the Etienne Bach Prize, which honors individuals who are committed to promoting understanding and reconciliation between people of different, historically adversarial, cultures. The prize is named in honor of a French soldier who, while overseeing occupied Datteln following World War I, forged an unlikely friendship with the town’s mayor.
Hoffstadter only learned a few years ago that his mother was one of “The One Thousand Children,” Jewish children who were rescued from the Nazis by American-based organizations such as the German Jewish Children’s Aid. Her father made the agonizing decision to give up custody of his youngest daughter and arranged for her escape just as the boycotts of Jewish businesses were beginning. She made the nine-day journey, unaccompanied, across the Atlantic on the SS Washington.
In 2018, Hoffstadter’s son Aaron visited Ellis Island and researched the ship’s manifest, where he found his grandmother’s name as well as the name of Cecilia Razovsky, executive secretary of the German Jewish Children’s Aid, who chaperoned Charlotte and 15 other unaccompanied Jewish children. After arriving at Ellis Island, Charlotte was taken into the foster system and settled in Chicago.
“My mother was not forthcoming about her past. She described her childhood only in idyllic terms, although she knew that the town was changing — she had been forced to leave her Catholic school because of her Jewish background — but she wasn’t aware that her father was being terrorized. I didn’t understand her distance from her own children —there were things that just weren’t discussed — until a few years ago when I realized that she must have been a very bitter child. She felt that she had been tossed out of her family home and sent alone to somewhere that she didn’t know the language,” Hoffstadter said.
Several years after his mother died in 1999, Hoffstadter started researching Datteln on the internet. Prior to World War II, Datteln had 18 Jewish families; none survived or returned to the town after the war. He read about the mayor, André Dora, and his efforts to combat anti-Semitism by recognizing the Jewish families who had once lived there. Hoffstadter wrote Dora to express his admiration and shared his family ties to the town. This initial correspondence has become a friendship that has been transformational for both of them.
They tentatively expressed some of their thoughts on politics and realized they shared similar thoughts and concerns about the world. Both expressed alarm about the rise of fascism, anti-Semitism, and global nationalism.
“We were like a couple of animals sniffing each other out,” said Hoffstadter. “But our communication was such that we had a general idea that we shared similar political views. He warmed to the idea that I was willing to have a dialogue with him.”
In addition to the mayor, Hoffstadter has developed a close relationship with his assistant, Rosemarie Schlosser. Schlosser advised him of the town’s participation in the Stolpersteine, an international project which honors more than 75,000 European victims of Nazism with commemorative metal street plaques and sent him photos of the stones, inscribed with his family members’ names, in front of his mother’s home. They exchanged hometown-related gifts — he sent her souvenirs from the Oak Park Visitors Center. And when his daughter Alexis visited Datteln in 2018, Schlosser gave her a personal tour of the town.
Schlosser also connected Hoffstadter with local historians who have sent him numerous material about the history of the town, including a book about the Jews in Datteln, which contains photos of his family, his grandfather’s store and the synagogue that his grandfather had helped build — pieces of family history about which he had not known. He has been interviewed twice by the local paper, Dattelner Morgenpost.
Hoffstadter admits the growing relationship with his mother’s hometown has not been without some personal anxiety, given the persecution of Jews in Germany. He is not interested in helping the people of Germany make peace with their past.
“It has been difficult to forge this relationship because it’s existential for me. If my grandfather hadn’t given up his youngest daughter, I wouldn’t be here. But it does help to know what happened and I was surprised to find out that some people in Datteln were apparently kind to my family,” he said.
In his presentation of the Etienne Bach Prize, Mayor Dora referred to Hoffstadter as the “personification of the outstretched hand of reconciliation.” He stated that if this was as natural for everyone as it was for Hoffstadter, the world would be a better place.
To that end, Hoffstadter has connected Mayor Dora and Rosemarie Schlosser with Oak Park Village President Vicki Scaman, who also has German roots. She is the first in her mother’s family to be born in the U.S. and, coincidentally, her mother and Schlosser’s father are from the same village — Weiden. She hopes to visit Dora and Schlosser in the fall.
“I have enjoyed my conversations with Germany, sharing stories about my family history and Ms. Schlosser’s in turn. Mayor Dora speaks of seeking like-minded leaders for peace and his concern that the western world may be falling into the same traps of division and hatred that mirror Germany’s history. I am very grateful to Alan for the introduction to them and for his commitment to friendship and peace,” Scaman said.
If it is true that every long journey begins with a first step, Alan Hoffstadter has already made great strides in developing friendships across physical and cultural distances.